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The Globe and Mail

New engine gives Simona de Silvestro a fighting chance in IndyCar

IndyCar driver Simona De Silvestro of Switzerland, reacts after her run on the final day of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 20, 2012.


Struggling through the 2012 racing season with an underpowered Lotus engine in the back of her IndyCar took a toll on Simona de Silvestro.

With her confidence bruised, it was really important to start 2013 with a good result, especially after moving to the Chevy-powered KV Racing Technology team in the off-season where she's expected to deliver.

That's why crossing the finish line sixth in last weekend's season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., was almost as good as a win for the young Swiss driver.

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"I think I had a little bit of doubt during the off-season if I was able to run up front after the season I had last year," she said.

"It was just a big relief that we started off the weekend really strong, qualified up front and pretty much raced up front the whole race. So it was really good. I think it was a big confidence boost for me and the team. I think now we can clean up a few things to be even better."

The 24-year-old spent most of 2012 running at the back of the IndyCar field due to her uncompetitive engine. Most estimates had the Lotus engine producing about 50 fewer horsepower than the Chevy and Honda motors also used in IndyCar. With her anemic powerplant, the best she could muster was three top-20 results in 15 races. Her best result was a 14th place.

Adding insult to injury was the black flag she was shown at Indianapolis after 10 laps because her Lotus-powered car was so slow it was a danger to the rest of the drivers.

Although all of the other four teams using Lotus at the beginning of the year switched to either Chevy or Honda by the Indy 500, which was the fifth race of the season, de Silvestro's HVM Racing outfit stuck with the underperforming engine. It simply couldn't afford a change.

Last year was doubly disappointing for de Silvestro who looked to be poised for a breakout season after taking three top-10s in 2011, including an impressive fourth in the opener at St. Petersburg, while racing for a single-car team with limited resources and budget.

While many outside the sport might not understand the significance of her performances in a backmarker team, her fellow IndyCar drivers know her potential. Ask most IndyCar drivers and they'll tell you she knows how to get a car around a racetrack quickly.

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"She's extremely fast – I said that even before she was my teammate," said 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan, who drives the second KV Racing car.

"I'm going to beat her sometimes; she's going to beat me sometimes. We're going to be cool. She's not going to like the days I finish ahead of her and likewise. As long as we use that to our advantage, it's going to be awesome."

One area where de Silvestro may need some advice from her new teammate is the 2013 Firestone tires, which seem to be much more prone to having the performance fall off when they get old compared to the ones used last season.

With her new Chevy engine pushing much more horsepower into softer tires than her Lotus from last year, tire management may be a challenge in the first few races of 2013 for de Silvestro.

"I think for us in St. Pete, definitely went away at the end: We ran out of rear tires," she said.

"I never struggled with that [last year] because I don't think I had the power for it. I think it makes it pretty exciting. Some cars are pretty good on tires and some aren't. I think that's what's mixing up the racing. You have to dial your car in the best you can to not have that issue."

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In St. Petersburg, de Silvestro went from third to sixth in the closing stages after her rubber simply stopped offering her grip and traction over the final few laps.

The series next stop is Alabama's Barber Motorsport Park on April 7, where de Silvestro expects to be in the middle of the same kind of tight racing that marked the season opener last weekend.

"I think the race in St. Pete was really competitive. Everybody was racing really hard and I think we're going to see the same thing at Barber," she said.

"Last year, I thought it was a pretty exciting race with quite a bit of passing, which we didn't see in the past; hopefully, it's going to be the same this year and it's going to be pretty action-packed."

And while the 2012 season was a write off when it came to results, de Silvestro insisted that the success she found in the season opener was due in part to some of the things she learned while racing a completely uncompetitive car last year.

"I think it was definitely a really frustrating year, but after a few races, I think I kind of changed my mind set a little bit and kind of focused on things I could improve," she said.

"Maybe what happened last year was a good thing because I really could take my time: I had no pressure for results or anything and could really go through the things that maybe I should do on my side. At the end of the day I was lucky to have a seat in IndyCar – there are so many drivers who want to be in IndyCar and don't get the opportunity."

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